Puella Magi Madoka Magica Episode 1 – Dreams of Grandeur
I’ve covered a few of director Akiyuki Shinbo’s shows before: ef -a tale of memories may not have seen him at the helm, but it has his fingerprints all over in its experimental style and narration layered over abstract representational scenes (he’s also credited as a “supervisor”). The less said about Arakawa Under the Bridge the better, but it was yet another example of his unique visual style.
His talents tend to be wasted on weird gag comedies that often flounder for material after the first few episodes, however. I thought his adaptation of Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei was scraping for material at the end of its initial 13 episode run, but for some reason it was so popular that it managed three sequel series and a few OVAs. Arakawa Under the Bridge was renewed for a second series, as well.
Whenever he’s doing something other than a gag comedy, though, I tend to be interested. Even though his abrasive visual style and jarring, rapid-fire cuts are occasionally liabilities when trying to tell a story that lasts beyond the 5-minute segments of a gag comedy, they’re a perfect fit for the horror genre, where he has also found success.
This time, however, he’s decided he wanted to make a show in the magical girl genre. That would be shows about girls, usually operating as a team, using magical powers to fight evil. It’s a genre typified by Sailor Moon, the international hit that got more girls (and plenty of boys) interested in anime than any other show in the 90s.
Not finding any suitable manga or light novels to adapt, he was essentially given free rein to create his own magical girl property. So he assembled a staff of vaguely-familiar names to create the world: manga artist Ume Aoki (Hidamari Sketch, whose anime adaptation Shinbo directed) to do the cutesy character designs, Yuki Kajiura (Noir, Shinbo’s Le Portrait de Petit Cossette) to do music, and visual novel writer Gen Urobuchi to write the script.
The result is Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica the most interesting thing to happen to the admittedly-not-all-that-interesting magical girl genre since Mai-Hime dropped the cutesy trappings and aimed for a more mature audience. While it’s anyone’s guess if the show will stay interesting over the course of the entire series, it’s off to a heck of a start.
Set in a futurist vision of contemporary Japan, the story is pretty standard fare for the genre. Madoka Kaname is an ordinary middle school girl who is having dreams that seem to indicate she has been chosen for some mysterious destiny. One day, a mysterious transfer student who seems to know far more about her than she should and who seems very similar to the girl in her dreams comes to warn her against becoming anything more than the ordinary girl she is now.
She promises nothing but danger and trouble if Madoka chooses to live outside the bounds of normal, everyday life. Later that day, Madoka rescues a strange, talking animal from being attacked by this girl, and another girl appears, does some magic, and says she’s chased off a witch.
There’s not much revealed about the magical world or the nature of the girls’ powers, but what little we see here is fairly stock for a magical girl show. You’ve got your assortment of girls: the average, normal heroine, the cool, disaffected one, the loyal best friend, and the expository older girl. There’s a talking animal that will no doubt become a companion, as well, and some kind of destiny to fulfill.
The premise may be standard, but there’s very little about Madoka Magica that looks ordinary. The show seems to take place 15 minutes into the future, where Japan has adopted a hyper-modernist style of architecture. Madoka’s house is a sleek and spacious mansion, with a bathroom larger than most Japanese bedrooms. The school is a strange, futuristic design, with glass-walled classrooms and high-tech blackboards reminiscent of Time of Eve’s near-future world, but with a more alien slant.
The character designs have a cutesy sketchbook feel, making them seem even more ethereal among the already otherworldly backgrounds. And that’s before the show ventures into its magical realm.
When a witch or some malevolent magical force appears later in the episode, Akiyuki Shinbo’s trademark style kicks in: the world turns into some kind of freakish opium nightmare, as creatures that look like a little girl’s crayon drawings pop out on a surrealist papercraft background. After it’s apparently defeated, the gorgeous normal backgrounds swim slowly back into place. The whole thing looks gorgeous.
I have no doubt that Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica will probably be the best looking debut episode this season. The question is whether or not it can keep it up. Shaft is notorious for letting its ambitions exceed its budget, with a lot of shows seeing a noticeable decline in quality as the season wears on. Bakemonogatari, probably Shinbo’s most accomplished series to date, was particularly guilty of this.
If the show can keep up the same level of visual beauty on display here, I don’t really care what kind of story it’s trying to tell. As long as it doesn’t turn into a flimsy excuse for prepubescent fan service, I’ll watch it. I might even write about it.
If, however, tradition holds and the quality starts to drop by episode 7 or so, the show is going to have to rely on its story to keep people’s interest. And whether or not it can do that remains to be seen.
Although the premise is standard, what little we see of the characters shows a lot of care has been put into them. Madoka and her mother, in particular, have a mother-daughter relationship that seems, if not authentic, very considered.
Hopefully as much effort was put into the story and characters as the visuals, and both of them can transcend the constraints of the genre and become something special. If that happens, this just might be Shinbo’s masterpiece. If not, I just hope it stays pretty.
You can watch this episode here.